A Warm Welcome

Newcomer’s Club is a fun and effective way for new residents to get to know the Comox Valley…

The students at George P. Vanier Secondary School in Courtenay lug extra-heavy backpacks to school for several weeks each December. Principal Charlie Schellinck watches them with a mixture of pride and nostalgia as they make their way to their classrooms and drop food donations into the Sharing the Christmas Spirit collection boxes.

It is not just Vanier students that are carrying extra food to school this time of year. Almost every classroom in every school throughout Districts 71 and 93, price
and the Christian School, rehabilitation
are involved with the program. Of the 650 hampers distributed every Christmas, close to 300 come from local schools. Individuals, churches, businesses, service clubs and community groups sponsor the rest. The Salvation Army has a similar hamper program and distributes an additional 750-plus hampers to families in our community.

For Schellinck, Sharing the Christmas Spirit brings back bittersweet memories of Christmases past. Today, most people identify the program with the Coast Realty Group but it was Schellinck’s mother, Tucky, who was the inspiration for this particular program. Tucky started distributing food and clothing to people in the Comox Valley in 1962. By the 1970s, with the help of many volunteers and the Catholic Women’s League, the program had expanded to include several hundred Christmas hampers. In 1987, for example, records show that 772 hampers were distributed to a total of 2,765 Comox Valley residents and more than $40,000 in cash donations was received. All of this was orchestrated from the basement of the Schellinck’s family home.

“Our basement,” explains Schellinck, “was always stuffed with food, gifts and clothing for people in need. My father, Hank, was the principal at Vanier at the time and both mom and dad were very involved with the Catholic Church. We learned from an early age to consider the needs of others first. I will never forget the time when I was a boy and we were sitting down as a family to enjoy a nice home cooked meal. There was an unexpected knock at the door and Mom opened it to find a young man on our doorstep asking for food to feed his hungry family. She gathered the food right off our table, packaged it up and gave it to him. I don’t remember what we ate that night… but I think his family enjoyed roast beef.”

Schellinck’s sister, Marian Duke, agrees. “The really neat thing about our mom was that she was always giving,” adds Duke. “Our mother truly put the giving spirit of Christmas into perspective for us. We were so proud when she was recognized for her lifelong commitment of caring and was honored with the Order of Canada in 1988. Not one to want to be in the limelight, she accepted the award on behalf of all of the volunteers in the Comox Valley.”

In 1988, Hank Schellinck retired and he and Tucky moved from their home on McPhee Avenue to a beach house. The idea was that Mrs. Schellinck would also retire and stop collecting for the food hampers. She recruited husband and wife realtor team, Brent and Donna Cunliffe, to take over the program—keeping an ever-watchful eye on their progress. Later, the Cunliffe’s became part of the Coast Realty Group and the effort was re-named the Sharing the Christmas Spirit Hamper Program. It is now a registered not-for-profit society.

In 1998, Rob Phillips moved from Vancouver to the Comox Valley and joined Coast Realty. He was assigned to be coordinator for School District 71’s hamper collection program. When the Cunliffe’s retired in 2009, Phillips was voted by acclamation to oversee the entire program.

Phillips explains that Sharing the Christmas Spirit is now a massive community effort that has long outgrown a basement. Every year the call goes out to the community for the donation of at least 3,500-square feet of warehouse space to store and sort donations. “It is always a challenge to find space,” says Phillips, “but someone always comes through.”

Once space is secured, Budget Rent-a-Car donates the use of a moving truck and hampers are collected from the schools. Over a period of 18 days straight an army of volunteers, coordinated by Ken and Fay Jones, put in long hours to ensure that every hamper has all of the necessary items. The Liquor Control Licensing Branch donates hundreds of stuffed toys; Dairyland provides several hundred litres of milk, and Courtenay Country Market, the local media and a number of other local businesses contribute time, funds, products or discounts on merchandise.

On delivery day—this year it is December 22—a posse of more than 100 volunteer drivers arrive to pick up and deliver two big rubber totes filled with food, gifts and community spirit to each of the selected individuals and families registered with the program. The hampers are delivered to homes from Fanny Bay to Black Creek, as well as Courtenay, Comox and Cumberland. In the past, a few hampers have even been delivered to Denman and Hornby Islands. The total value of this effort is now in excess of $100,000.

The Coast Realty hamper program is only one of several goodwill initiatives in the Comox Valley. To avoid duplicating services and ensure as many people as possible benefit from the various programs, Coast Realty works in cooperation with the Salvation Army and others to compare and streamline lists of potential recipients.

Dian Smit, owner of North Island Nerds on Site, says that words alone can not express how emotionally overwhelming it is to be on the receiving end of a Christmas hamper.

Smit’s two sons are now grown up and she is successfully operating a home-based business that provides mobile computer support to businesses and individuals, but there was a time in her life where it was hard to be optimistic about what the future might hold. Christmas, for her, was just an ominous date on the family calendar, a reminder of how difficult it was going to be to be able to afford food, let alone gifts, for her children. For six consecutive years, receiving a Christmas hamper a few days before Christmas gave her hope.

“It was a couple of years after my divorce,” recalls Smit. “I was a single mom on social assistance with two pre-school age boys. I began looking for a job when the boys started school. I had graduated from high school and earned a computer sciences diploma from Camosun College in Victoria, so finding a job should have been easy. However, during the eight years I was busy raising my boys, the computer industry had made a dramatic shift from mainframes to personal computers. My skills and knowledge were outdated.”

For the next three-and-a-half years, Smit attended North Island College and worked between semesters to earn money. For the first couple of years, Smit signed up for the hamper program on her own. Later, when she felt she was managing okay, she did not. Someone in the community, however, recognized her struggle and put her name on the list as a gesture of kindness and support.

“The hampers provided me with enough food for about three weeks,” explains Smit. “In addition to lifting my sprits, it gave my food budget a break and enabled me to buy warm clothes for the boys and to have some extra money to pay the hydro bill. Most people don’t realize it but things like shampoo and toilet paper that we normally take for granted are a most welcome addition to the hampers. Every donation to a food bank or hamper program is appreciated. Two packages of spaghetti and a bag of oatmeal go a long way to feed a family. Getting the staples—like flour and sugar—was very much appreciated. Getting something extraordinary—like chocolate chips so we could make Christmas cookies—was a welcome surprise.

“And the gifts… the gifts were always amazing!” Smit recalls, her voice cracking with emotion. “I don’t know how they ever picked them out but they were always perfect. Every year, the day the hampers arrived, I cried happy tears of gratitude and relief.”

It has been more than 10 years since Smit has received a hamper but she says that she will never forget how much it meant to her family. She shared her story with InFocus because she feels it is important to clarify that people who receive community support like this are not burdens to society. They are just regular people who are down on their luck and need some help. A hamper is a ‘hand up’ not a ‘hand out’.

Smit’s heart-felt gratitude has now fostered into a spirit of giving back. On November 23, 2010, she partnered with Kathy Birkett Virtual Assistant and Beth Campbell Duke Personal Branding to host a social media class at Serious Coffee in Courtenay. Admission was by donation of non-perishable food items to the ‘Fill the Beetle, Feed the People’ food bank program supported by Nerds on Site in communities around the world. Smit was all smiles when she drove her red polka-dot Volkswagen beetle to the food bank to deliver a trunk full of food the next morning.

Sharing the giving spirit of Christmas in the Comox Valley is not always done through non-profit groups and community associations. Many people make an effort to brighten the lives of others in small but impactful ways.

“I practice random acts of kindness throughout the year,” says Darlene Goodrick, “but I do remember one year, I had made up some mugs filled with chocolates and candy. I gave one to a homeless woman outside the bank and she was so happy to get something.  It felt good to be able to bring joy to someone. I later found out that her name was Ruby and that she had been in the hospital for an extended period of time and, when she got out, all her belongings had been sold for rent owed. She had no home and no possessions.  That was such a sad story and I was glad that I had been able to bring a tiny bit of joy to her life on that wintery day.”

Carolyn Price-Touhey of Two Eagles Lodge in Union Bay says she and her husband Steve now share the spirit of Christmas by adopting an open door policy on Christmas day.

“We moved here several years ago from the state of Maryland,” explains Price-Touhey. With so many of our Island friends being away from family, we invite them to join us for Christmas—either dinner, a drink, dessert—just an open door on a holiday that is not usually an open house day.  That way, all of us transplants can become one big family. The tradition started in 2006, after our neighbors invited us to share Easter and other holidays with them. When they moved from the area, we opened the invitation up to others.  Lots of people come… some of them we know well and others we hardly know at all. It is always a blast.”

Karen Provost of ReMax recalls another story that exemplifies the Christmas spirit.

“One year, a colleague and I were asked to make Christmas special for a local Comox resident who was bedridden and dying of cancer,” recalls Provost. “So, while she was sleeping, we crept onto her deck and decorated it with cedar boughs, ornaments, lights, baubles and angels. There was one wreath that was a little heavy and we needed a nail to hang it on. We looked around and found one single shiny new nail and were both surprised. Just when we needed it, there it was!   As daylight turned to dusk, we plugged in the lights and the family opened the curtains for our friend as she awoke. We had tears and hugs all around and it was an extremely touching moment. Years later, I still pass that home and fondly remember how it felt to be a part of making one family’s last Christmas with their loved one so memorable.”

Adds Lauren MacLauclan, from the Law of Attraction Training Room: “By intentionally and genuinely giving to others, or by expressing thankfulness and appreciation in any way, shape or form, you will be getting back what you are giving out.

“That is the essence and spirit of true giving. It is a circle. It blesses both the giver and the receiver. It is evidence of ‘whatever comes around goes around’.”
It was a fairly typical mid winter day when I met up with the Comox Valley Newcomer’s Club.  The morning was cold, eczema
it was raining heavily, click and I thought to myself, sildenafil
‘This is not going to work, no one will be there.’  Who would want to go walking on a morning like this?  Much to my surprise, lots of people—18 women, in fact—showed up for the “Four Bridges’ walk that morning and were now gathering at the Comox Quality Foods restaurant for a well deserved warm beverage.

Newcomer’s Club members get together for an early morning winter walk. “For me I think it has made the difference between me really liking this place and not,” says member Bev White, who movd here three years ago. “I know it is easy to meet people, but it is so much easier to meet people this way.”

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

The Comox Valley Newcomer’s Club is a social group for women who have moved to the Comox Valley within the past two years.  “We help to make women who are new to the Valley feel comfortable, meet friends and learn as much about the Valley as they can,” says ex-Ottawa native and current Newcomer’s Club president, Julie Tuepah.

The club currently has 156 members, which makes it the second largest in Canada.  The Calgary club is the largest and also the oldest as it celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.   Club composition varies from city to city.  The Comox Valley club is a women’s only organization, but male partners and spouses are able to attend about a third of the club’s many activities.

There are activities to suit everyone listed on the Comox Valley Newcomer’s Club’s website, including music, garden and five different bridge groups.  “There’s a range of activities for everybody,” says Tuepah.  “If you’re active and you want to walk, or hike or ski there are those activities.  There’s bridge, if you want reading groups, you want knitting, you want stitching groups, if you want to go to a show—whatever somebody is interested in doing, then they can set up an activity.  People sign up for it, the convenor is responsible for seeing that the activity runs, setting a time, a date and a place, and you go from there.  So really there’s nothing stopping you from doing what you want to do and you’ve got a group of people that you can do it with.”

The club executive organizes the monthly meetings at the Florence Filberg Centre where people can join the club, promote an activity and hear a presentation about the Comox Valley from a guest speaker.  The January speaker was Ian Kennedy who gave an overview of his book, The Life and Times of Joseph McPhee.

Tuepah’s post on their website about Kennedy’s presentation demonstrates how the Newcomer’s has helped her to know her way around:  ”I couldn’t help but think of my first few months in the Valley when I only had a few places as landmarks, and now after almost three years, I could recognize almost all of the places mentioned by Ian.  Participating in the Friday walks, Pub Nights, Appy Nights, Coffee Parties, Luncheons, and other activities, helped me find my way around the towns very quickly and in great company!”

Judy Francis, currently past president of the National Newcomer’s Council, described the thinking that goes into choosing the speakers.   “Because of the nature of the ladies that are joining, they’re very outgoing and they want to know about the community.  So what we try to do is get people who can talk about different things, like different environmental issues and what’s happening in the Valley.  For example, we’ve had speakers talk about bald eagles and we’ve had the harbour master from Comox come in.  To me that is the focus of the speakers—to educate people about what is happening around them in their new environment.”

When Francis moved here from Calgary four and a half years ago she heard about the Newcomer’s Club but was not predisposed to join.   “When I came here someone said I should join Newcomer’s and I had this vision of Newcomer’s being a bunch of old women who didn’t do anything and I fought against it.  Then one person said, ‘No Judy, you are completely wrong—it is the opposite, give it a try.’  Well, obviously, I did.”  She jumped right in and has held many positions including president of the Comox Valley Club, liaison to National Council, and last year, national president.

The National Council assists the 60 clubs and approximately 6,000 members across Canada.  The Comox Valley is gaining population and thus the club is growing and vibrant.   As national president, Francis worked with many clubs that were shrinking due to economic factors and out-migration.

Given her initial reluctance and now her broad perspective, I asked Judy what she tells people to entice them to try out Newcomer’s.  “I ask them to give it a try.  It’s not for everybody.  But generally once they come on one of the Friday morning walks, which I encourage, and come for coffee afterwards, they’re pretty much smitten.  Because the women are wonderful, and there’s somebody here that they’re going to relate to probably and then they’ll start meeting more people and it just grows.

“You’ll go from knowing nobody to knowing more people than you’ve known in your whole life in about three or four months.  It’s absolutely phenomenal!  I play a lot of tennis here with local ladies who have lived here all their lives and they’re very envious of how many people we know, but, that’s the way it is.”

You can only belong to the Newcomer’s Club for three years.  After that you can continue through an alumni association or some people keep their activity groups in place and just carry on.  The club’s publicity coordinator Judi Murakami, formerly from Victoria, is in her third year.  “I didn’t know about Newcomer’s until I read about it in the paper here,” says Murakami of how she became involved with the club.  “So I came to a meeting and I thought, ‘Oh there’ll be about seven women in the room.’  I walked in and there was 100 women!  I’d never seen such a big group in Courtenay.  I was quite amazed at all the diverse activities and it was a great way to meet people and see the Valley.”

One of the things Murakami enjoys the most is the constant influx of new members.  “In Newcomer’s we have a lot of new people coming in and of course people will move on so there is a constant flow of people.  And it’s quite neat when you go to a meeting you have all these new people at the front.  And, every meeting there are new people standing up there.”

The Alumni walking group has joined us for coffee because their Friday morning walking group had coincidentally been out on the same route.   Prior to writing this article I believed that the Newcomer’s Club was just for retired people who could go for walks and coffee mid day, mid week.  That is not the case—to serve the younger new residents there is the Betwixt & Betweeners group.  It is open to newcomers who are age 55 and under and their spouses and partners, with activities planned for evenings and weekends.

Jo-Anne Vandermeulen, formerly from Yorkton, is the club’s website and newsletter editor.  She described her experience with Betwixt & Betweeners.  “Every month is different.  Last month I believe it was bowling, this month it’s games night, the other month it was dinner at one of the local restaurants.  It’s good because you can mix with your own age group.”

Everyone seems to have the same enthusiasm for the Newcomer’s Club as the following survey of one table of women revealed.  I asked them to tell me their favorite activity.  “I enjoy doing something almost every day because of Newcomer’s,” says Val Brown.  “Exploring the Valley and learning what’s what and what’s where.  I do walking and stitching and the lunches, and, the women’s time out.  We have lots of fun, meet lots of people.  It is the best!”

Sue Martin can’t choose her favourite activity.  “I’m involved in different activities and I can’t say that I do have a favorite.  I like to walk and I’m in a book club and a gardening group.  I’m in food groups, so, I enjoy them all.”

Adds Betty Lou Rattray:  “I have two favorite activities—one of them is belonging to our garden club and the second one is our biking club.  We go out once a week, cycling in the area, in residential areas and parks and paths, exploring.”

Given the weather this morning Shirley Palahicky offers an understandable answer for a true newbie when she says:  “I’m too new to have an opinion about all the activities but I enjoy the walks, particularly when it is sunny.”

Other members are quick to point out the benefits of being in a club like Newcomer’s.  “Coming to the Valley and just being able to meet people who are going through exactly the same things you are—you know, who knows an electrician, somebody who can fix your pipes, a good landscape gardener and all the things people are going through when they first come to a new area.  And have friends to do it with and get advice, it is just amazing,” says Sue Newman.  “I do pub and grub, home décor, and walking and coffee and lunch and appy night.  There are still lots of things that I’d like to do.  You dive in and get to know lots of people when you do it, so it’s wonderful.”

The club is not just inwardly focused on the needs of its members.  The Newcomer’s Club actively participates in the community, donating to the Coast Realty Christmas hamper program and through an annual targeted fundraising project.  This year the club is raising funds for the Comox Valley Transition Society.  For the last three years they have received the Spirit Award from the Vancouver Island Heart & Stroke Foundation for the club’s efforts in the Big Bike Ride fundraiser.

Club vice-president Bev White credits Newcomer’s for her involvement in other community fundraising projects.  White, along with many other members, is helping with the upcoming musical Have a Heart, which runs at the Florence Filberg Centre from February 11-13.  The production will raise funds for the Central & Northern Vancouver Island United Way, St. Joseph’s General Hospital Foundation and the Comox United Church.  The musical is being directed by Gloria Herauf, an accomplished theatre director from Saskatchewan, who is a member of the Comox Valley Newcomer’s Alumni.

Bev White had lived in North Vancouver most of her life before moving to the Valley three years ago.  “For me I think it has made the difference between me really liking this place and not, because I know it is easy to meet people, but, it is so much easier to meet people this way.”

The club, White adds, has helped both her and her partner make the transition to a new community.  “I was told that it is women only because it is typically women who go out and get involved when people move to a new community.  But then you bring your partner or husband along and pretty soon they’re off and running.”

Despite the gloomy weather and their wet clothes, the room is alive with the group’s laughter, warmth, and friendliness.  Judy Francis explained why she thinks the club is so vibrant:  “I would say over 70 per cent of the people who come here come for a lifestyle change, like hiking, biking, walking, all sorts of things.  So the person who is moving to the Comox Valley is young at heart—maybe not young at age—and looking for friends, looking for activities.  So there’s just a vibrancy about it and people kind of feed off each other.”

The Comox Valley Newcomer’s Club meets the first Monday of each month at the Florence Filberg Centre in Courtenay.  Meetings start at 7 pm, show up early to socialize or join the club.  For more information phone Pat at 250-331-0743 or visit